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Spike Lee on diversity in Hollywood: 'If you’re not in the room, you don't have a vote'

Director Spike Lee speaks with actress Angela Bassett on the set of
Director Spike Lee speaks with actress Angela Bassett on the set of "Chi-Raq."
Parrish Lewis
Director Spike Lee speaks with actress Angela Bassett on the set of
A scene from Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq."
Parrish Lewis

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The latest movie from filmmaker Spike Lee is a poetic satire about the violence that has plagued Chicago’s South Side for decades.

“Chi-Raq," which arrives in theaters on Dec. 4, is very loosely adapted from the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes. Even though the playwright lived about 2,500 years ago, his story about how women withheld sex from men to try to end the Peloponnesian War proved oddly relevant to Lee. 

“Chi-Raq,” which is a hybrid of Chicago and Iraq, stars John Cusack as a preacher campaigning against gun violence. The film’s cast includes Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett and Nick Cannon.

Lee came by The Frame studio to talk about why he wanted to tell this story, how he ended up picking Chicago for this story, and what has to be done to increase diversity in Hollywood's corner offices.

Interview Highlights:

Why did you decide to set this film in Chicago?

Chicago is the mass murder capital of the U.S.A. New York City is three times the population of Chicago and Chicago has more homicides than New York and L.A. — not combined, but separate ... And there’s a reason why the local rappers from Chicago coined the term Chi-Raq

The other credited screenwriter in this film is Aristophenes, who wrote a play about a woman named Lysistrata and she did something that was way ahead of her time.

Well, it worked. Aristophenes wrote this play in 411 B.C. The lead character, Lysistrata, is tired of the wars, so she comes up with this strategy — genius — that women should withhold sex until these wars stop. Most recently, a woman named Sister Leymah won a Nobel Peace Prize for that tactic, which stopped the second civil war in Liberia.

The film ends with a call to wake up. This is about the only way that these women can get to these men and get them to start paying attention to what they’re doing and who they’ve become. Is that the point?

Yes, but I think there’s also another element that I think people come out of the theater thinking about, which is the problem of guns in this country. That is a big part of the story. I’m not talking about taking anybody’s 2nd Amendment right away, but ... let’s have stronger legislation. Let’s have more vigilant background checks. Let’s start [issuing titles for] guns like cars. There’s no reason why somebody should be able to walk into a gun store or a gun show and come out with an assault weapon with a fake I.D.

Here’s the thing: Chicago has a very tough gun law in the city. So does New York. But the neighboring states are lacking. People get in the car in Chicago, 30 minutes later they’re in Indiana. In New York, [you find] guns from Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina. So, if we don’t have a uniform law about gun control, that defeats the purpose. We gotta do something about the guns.

We’ve talked about this a lot on our show, how hard it is for women and people of color to get jobs in Hollywood. If we visited your movie set, what would we see in your crew and among your department heads? How intentional are you about making sure your movie set looks like the rest of the country?

Things like that don’t happen by accident. People don’t just show up on a movie set. You get hired. So diversity has been a staple of my sets since 1986.

What do you think about that word, diversity?

I think it’s a great word. To go back to a sentence of my speech that the New York Times got wrong: I said, "The United States Census Bureau says, by early as the year 2043, white Americans will be the minority." The Times reported, “Spike Lee says...” They left it out. That’s not a mistake. You cannot leave out that I [credited] the United States Census Bureau. That’s a big, big deletion. And that was done on purpose.

For what purpose, do you think? To make you the firebrand?

No, to make it seem like I’m pulling that stat out of my ass. It’s not what I think; it’s what the U.S. Census Bureau has said in a report. Big difference! Journalism shenanigans.

But it’s also Hollywood shenanigans. We live in an era where the country is increasingly diverse, and yet with women, people of color — I mean the EEOC right now is investigating how Hollywood hires and doesn’t hire women. Should they do the same for people of color?

They should start. The thing I said that probably got picked at the most [was] it’s easier for an African-American person to be president of the United States of America than president of a Hollywood studio or network.

What happens next? There’s a lot of talk about diversity ... there hasn’t been a lot of action. Let’s dream and say that Hollywood becomes a mirror of the nation. What is the content? What are the creative stories?

There will be a lot of different stories. It’s going to open them up. But the thing I wrote down in my book, is it’s not just us being the presidents of a Hollywood studio or network. We’ve also got to be in a position where we have some green light votes. And this is how you decide – this is the process that decides what we’re making and what we’re not making.

Does Hollywood need the Rooney Rule, which is when you’re hiring a new coach in the NFL, you [have] to interview somebody who’s not a white guy?

But how are you going to enforce that? I don’t know how you can do that. The NFL is a league. That’s one entity. Hollywood is different entities. But I’ll say this: [in] the great, great play, “Hamilton,” on Broadway ... there’s a song in that magnificent play, sung by Leslie Odom Jr. The title is, “I Wanna Be In The Room When It Happens.” We’re not in the room! [laughs] If you’re not in the room, you don't have a vote, and if you’re not in the room, everything else doesn’t matter.

Here’s the thing: We get tricked into thinking that because there are numerous African-American giant stars — Denzel, there’s [Oprah] Winfrey, Samuel Jackson — who’s made more money than anybody, ever — Will Smith, Halle Berry. But they’re not running stuff. They don’t have a vote.

They’re not making the phone calls; they’re waiting for the phone to ring.

Yes. They’re not part of the institution that decides what gets made and what doesn’t. Of course, a big star can do whatever they want — for a period. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people that have green light votes at Hollywood studios and network broadcast television.

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